The Italian wine star that came back from oblivion

It is the rising star of Italian wine, a greeny-gold white starting to earn an international reputation for its distinctive minerally edge and ageing potential.

The Italian wine star that came back from oblivion
Luigi Cataldi Madonna was the first producer to market a pure pecorino based on the varietal name. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Yet pecorino, which shares its name with one of Italy's best-known cheeses, might not even exist but for the vision of a trailblazing pioneer fondly remembered by his daughters as being “a little bit crazy”.

The late Guido Cocci Griffoni is revered as a hero of Italian viticulture and his native region of Marche for having hauled the ancient grape back from
the brink of extinction.

In the early 1980s however, the self-taught winemaker was almost alone in identifying the potential of a varietal now enjoying critical acclaim and commercial success after a four-fold increase in plantings between 2000 and 2011.

“Pecorino is not just a great grape variety; it is also one of Italy's biggest wine success stories of the 21st century,” says writer Ian d'Agata, the author of “Native Wine Grapes of Italy”.

The grape's name is derived from the Italian word for sheep, “pecora”, which are ubiquitous in the hills of central Italy, where both wild and cultivated pecorino vines abounded in the 19th century, providing a ready snack for shepherds.

Things began to change after World War II as rural depopulation emptied mountain villages in Marche and the neighbouring Abruzzo region.

Professional grape growers turned away from pecorino to the higher-yielding but less characterful varieties trebbiano and malvasia, grapes generally destined to be made into non-descript wines by cooperatives lacking Cocci Grifoni's vision.

“Pecorino is not generous in yield terms and, at that time, volume was everything; farmers needed money,” explains Marilena Cocci Grifoni, who now runs the estate alongside her winemaker sister Paola.

Reborn in Marche

But their father had a hunch that pecorino could produce interesting results and in 1982 he began experimenting with a parcel of wild vines acquired from an 80-year-old farmer no longer able to tend his garden vineyard at Arquata del Tronto, 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) above sea level in the Marche mountains.

Experimental samples were made from vines planted on four different slopes before the decision was made to go with the coolest of them, a steep north-facing slope licked by salty breezes from the Adriatic Sea.

A peach orchard was ripped up to make way for what is now the “mother vineyard” and the first Cocci Grifoni Pecorino was made from the 1990 harvest.

That year's production had to be bottled as a humble table wine but recognition was to come quickly.

In 2001, Pecorino from the Offida area was granted DOC or controlled origin status. A decade later it completed an extraordinarily quick ascent to the top rank of Italian wine by obtaining the DOCG classification occupied by the likes of Barolo and Chianti Classico.

Export markets are the next horizon with the wine now starting to appear on the shelves of British supermarkets and restaurant wine lists in North America.

Baptized in Abruzzo

Winemaker Paolo says a good pecorino should smell of tropical fruits but also display balsamic, herbal and honey notes thanks to the grapes' combination of high sugar and high acidity.

“The sugar means it is always strong in alcohol and the acidity brings freshness,” she says. “These two elements give the wine its potential to age and this evolution leads to a particularly complex range of tastes.”

Marilena says their father would regard the pecorino success story as a miracle.

“He has given the possibility of work to the children of farmers who believed there was no future in their area. Now young people are deciding to stay, to invest and not to abandon the vines. This is what he'd be proudest of.”

Despite Cocci Griffoni leading the way in Marche, more pecorino is now produced in Abruzzo, where Luigi Cataldi Madonna was the first producer to market a pure pecorino based on the varietal name.

“The Cocci Griffonis rediscovered pecorino but I was the one to baptise it,” says the university philosophy lecturer.

Cataldi Madonna says acidity-based freshness should be the defining quality of a pecorino, and his lead has influenced the style of other producers in Abruzzo.

“If I need to meditate I read Saint Augustine, I don't drink a glass of wine,” he told AFP, saying he has no time for those who seek to elevate fermented grape juice into something overly complex.

“I drink when I'm happy, with friends and having fun. That's what wine is for.

“The only noble drink is water!”

Diluted versions

Wine expert D'Agata meanwhile warns that rapidly expanding production could make pecorino a victim of its own success.

“Right now it is Italy's hottest white. And there is no doubt it can give complex, age-worthy wines,” he says.

“But it is being planted everywhere and from high yielding biotypes, whereas pecorino is a low yielder by definition. The result is that a lot of Pecorino doesn't resemble what I think the wine should smell and taste like.”

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.